By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Trapped in what seemed like a recurring nightmare, Washington Redskins safety LaRon Landry shook his head in disbelief late Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati had made timely plays to prolong a drive that resulted in a field goal and extended its lead to 10 points as Washington's defense failed again in the fourth quarter.
"We had to hold 'em right there, we had to get a turnover or make 'em [punt], and we just couldn't get off the field again," Landry said. "You just look around and think, 'Man, how does this keep happening?' "
The 16-play drive was key in the Bengals' 20-13 victory -- only their second win in 14 games -- and a new low in Washington's once-promising season. With the embarrassing loss to Cincinnati, the Redskins (7-7) were all but eliminated from playoff contention.
The ineffectiveness of Washington's defense in the fourth quarter has been a major problem during the team's 1-5 slide, and among many areas of concern for management as it assesses what went wrong in 2008. Too often, the defense failed to stop opponents with outcomes undecided, stirring self-doubt within a group considered the strength of the team. Washington has two games remaining, against Philadelphia and San Francisco, and it would be nice to make a stand again when it matters most, several defensive players said.
"I was thinking about this last night, and there's really no good way to say it, but the truth is we're just not making the plays at crunch time," defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander said. "We stop 'em for three, three-and-a-half quarters, but when the fourth quarter comes around, and we've got a chance to win, it seems like we go in the tank for some reason.
"The calls are the same, the players are the same, but we just haven't been getting it done. We have a chance to give the ball back to our offense, and we just don't do it. They [opponents] just seem to turn it up and we seem to stay at that same level, like they want it more than us. I know that's not true, we want it, but that's just the way it looks when you see the results."
On Sunday, the Bengals consumed 7 minutes 13 seconds on a possession place kicker Shayne Graham capped with a 45-yard field goal for a 20-10 lead. Cincinnati gained only 41 yards on the drive, but it converted twice on third down and once on fourth to maintain possession. Cincinnati had the ball for almost 11 minutes in the quarter.
In a 24-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 7, the Ravens finished off the Redskins with a 12-play, 83-yard drive. The possession spanned 7:52, and ended with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco teaming with wide receiver Derrick Mason for a 28-yard touchdown with 3:35 remaining in the game. In a one-wide-receiver set with two tight ends, Baltimore ran the ball on the first 11 plays, including 10 rushes by 260-pound fullback Le'Ron McClain.
The Ravens leaned heavily on McClain and their offensive line to close out the victory, and "the problem is, when they make a commitment they're going to run it, if he hits the line of scrimmage and he falls forward, he's going to get three yards," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "You do it three times, you're going to be right in there. It's a matter of under the dynamics of it, if people decide to run it, put [in] two tight ends and you don't knock it back at the line of scrimmage for three downs, then they're going to get" first downs.
Baltimore had a five-minute advantage in time of possession during the quarter. Although it knew what was coming, the Redskins' defense could not get off the field.
"We knew they were going to come out there and run the ball," Landry said. "They had a rookie quarterback out there who was struggling, so you knew they weren't going to air that ball out, they weren't going to put the ball in his hands to lose the game. They had two downhill running backs out there and one wide receiver. We knew they were running right at us. Why didn't we stop 'em? I don't know. I just know they straight up rammed it down our throats."
As did the Dallas Cowboys during their 14-10 victory in Week 11 at FedEx Field. Running back Marion Barber touched the ball on 11 consecutive plays (10 rushes, one reception) in leading the Cowboys on a 6:40 drive that ended with quarterback Tony Romo kneeling twice to run out the clock. Barber finished with 114 yards on 24 carries. The Redskins had the ball for only 4:08 in the fourth quarter.
"In each of those games it came down to a yard on third down or a yard on fourth down, and those plays are hard to get, but we needed to do a better job," weak-side linebacker Rocky McIntosh said. "We've definitely got to stop those guys in situations like that so we can give our offense a chance. You don't want to make excuses, but it's just tough sometimes."
Ranked among the NFL's top defenses throughout the season, Washington gives up only 284.8 yards per game, the league's fifth-lowest total, but Landry said, "What does it matter if we can't get off the field when it counts most?
"We can play 110 percent until the last series, but if it comes down to the final seconds when we have to make a play, it doesn't matter what we did before if we can't make a play."
Injuries have been a factor, coaches said. Along the line, Cornelius Griffin -- the Redskins' top interior lineman -- and fellow defensive tackles Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery each has missed two games and been slowed in others. Defensive end Jason Taylor twice underwent surgery for acute compartment syndrome, a buildup of pressure on a muscle group in his left leg, has struggled against the run, has only 1.5 sacks and was essentially demoted to second string at left end behind Demetric Evans. After a strong 2007 season, right defensive end Andre Carter has experienced a significant drop-off in production. The Redskins are expected to focus on the defensive line in the draft and free agency as they move to improve their talent level and depth at many positions.
Strong-side linebacker Marcus Washington, limited to only 20 games the last two seasons, has sat out the last four games because of a high-ankle sprain. Middle linebacker London Fletcher has remained in the lineup despite a foot injury, and McIntosh, coming off reconstructing knee surgery last season, has not been as active recently as he was earlier in the season, Blache said.
"It's tough," Washington said. "You're over there [on the sideline] watching guys fighting their hearts out, and you wish you could be in there helping your teammates out. But you're over there helpless, not being able to contribute anything, when you know the game is on the line."
But successful teams overcome injuries and still get the job done, Landry said, and the Redskins' defense simply has not been good enough down the stretch. "You can't say it's the coach's calls or we're not prepared," he said. "It ain't like we've never seen these formations before.
"We've seen this stuff all the time. We rep it in practice all the time and Coach Blache does a great job calling the plays. So none of that has nothing to do with it. The bottom line is that we just didn't do our job. We didn't stop 'em. That's on us as players and nobody else. You know what I mean?"